Through the first week of free agency and almost a month into the NHL offseason — since the St. Louis Blues hoisted the Stanley Cup on June 12 — several teams have reshaped their rosters to take a run at hockey’s holy grail in 2020 and beyond.
Granted, there are still some quality players available on the open market — Jake Gardiner, Ryan Dzingel and Micheal Ferland, to name a few — and also the potential for more offer sheets this summer, but most of the retooling has already taken place for the season to come.
As of today, here are 12 teams that appear to be trending up — six from each conference, with the divisional breakdown being four from the Central, three from the Metropolitan and Atlantic, and two from the Pacific.
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New Jersey Devils
With the hope of locking up Taylor Hall to a long-term contract, Ray Shero has been pulling out all the stops to impress the star forward by icing the best team possible.
The Devils got lucky in winning the draft lottery to select Jack Hughes first overall — forming a dynamic 1-2 punch down the middle with Nico Hischier — but Shero managed to acquire P.K. Subban without surrendering any key roster players in a trade with Nashville, then added Wayne Simmonds as a free agent.
Those two could have an immediate impact, with Subban instantly becoming the Devils’ top defenceman and Simmonds being motivated by a one-year contract that could turn into a bigger payday next summer based on a strong performance.
The goaltending of Cory Schneider and Mackenzie Blackwood will likely determine the Devils’ fate in 2019-20, but Shero has certainly bolstered the roster.
The acquisition of depth forward John Hayden from Chicago didn’t move the needle much, but New Jersey could also benefit from a youth movement with Hughes, 2018 first-rounder Ty Smith, 2016 first-rounder Michael McLeod and 2017 second-rounder Jesper Boqvist among those pushing to be in the opening-night lineup.
This is definitely a team on the rise, especially if the Devils can convince Hall to stay in the fold.
New York Rangers
The Rangers’ rebuild was short and sweet by NHL standards. Jeff Gorton has masterfully put the pieces in place and now he has John Davidson helping oversee this resurgence.
The Rangers also got their share of luck as another lottery winner for the consolation prize of Kaapo Kakko, while the bright lights of New York City attracted Artemi Panarin as the biggest fish from this year’s free-agent pool.
Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox also wanted to be Rangers, thus facilitating trades with Winnipeg and Carolina, respectively, that required only Neal Pionk and futures in return.
Those two are significant upgrades for the Rangers’ defence, and their offence is going to be electric with the additions of Kakko, Panarin and 2018 first-rounder Vitali Kravtsov.
Henrik Lundqvist has to be the happiest man in Manhattan, with the Rangers rebuilding overnight and perhaps giving him another chance at a championship before retirement, but even he’s going to be pushed by Alexandar Georgiev and Igor Shesterkin.
The Rangers will be young, but they have the potential to be surprisingly good with continued development from sophomores Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson and Brett Howden. David Quinn seems like the perfect coach to grow with this group.
Jim Nill added three veterans in free agency — two of them on the cheap — to a team that took the reigning champs to double overtime in Game 7 of the second round.
The Stars weren’t far off and should be right there again after signing Joe Pavelski, Corey Perry and Andrej Sekera. The latter two inked one-year contracts with plenty to prove after being bought out by their former teams, Anaheim and Edmonton, respectively.
Dallas is now one of the deeper teams on paper and should get another boost from the progression of Finnish sophomores Roope Hintz and Miro Heiskanen, who were already standouts during this year’s playoff run.
Jim Montgomery has a year under his belt at the NHL level — after making the coaching jump from the college ranks — so he’ll be better prepared for his second season, and the Stars added more experience behind the bench with John Stevens joining as an assistant alongside Rick Bowness and Todd Nelson to form an impressive four-man staff.
Dallas is built to win now and if the core can stay healthy — starting with Ben Bishop in net — the Stars could have as good a shot as any team in 2019-20.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Kyle Dubas has stickhandled around the salary cap, but he still needs to get a deal done with Mitch Marner — one of the prime offer-sheet targets in the present.
That resolution remains the top priority in Toronto, but Dubas has been busy in the meantime. He’s overhauled the Leafs’ defence by trading for Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci, who are big upgrades on Nikita Zaitsev and Ron Hainsey, though Gardiner is also presumed gone and Travis Dermott could be sidelined until Christmas in recovering from shoulder surgery.
Dubas also got Alex Kerfoot in the deal for Barrie — that sent Nazem Kadri to Colorado — and signed Jason Spezza to a hometown discount for added forward depth. Toronto extended Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson and Kerfoot on contracts that should be team-friendly in the future.
Connor Brown was the other loss up front — a cap casualty of sorts — but Trevor Moore should be able to fill that hole at less than half the cost, and Mike Babcock also has high hopes for Ilya Mikheyev, a free agent from the KHL. Nic Petan, Nick Shore and Kenny Agostino round out the new forwards — or relatively new in Petan’s case.
A full season of Jake Muzzin should also help matters as Toronto continues to contend in that daunting Atlantic Division.
Stan Bowman has shored up Chicago’s goaltending and defence, positioning the Blackhawks to be much improved in building on their late-season momentum after adapting to Jeremy Colliton’s systems.
Marc Crawford will complement Colliton’s coaching staff as a veteran voice, but the on-ice additions of goaltender Robin Lehner — a Vezina finalist to platoon with Corey Crawford — and shutdown defenders Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan should put Chicago back into the playoff mix.
The Blackhawks also brought back Andrew Shaw for additional character and signed Ryan Carpenter for more sandpaper amongst their bottom-six forwards.
There will be plenty of competition up front in training camp, with European signings Dominik Kubalik and Anton Wedin also expected to challenge for spots, along with recent trade acquisitions Alex Nylander, the eighth overall pick from 2016, Aleksi Saarela, who is coming off a 30-goal campaign for AHL champion Charlotte, and John Quenneville, who already has 33 games of NHL experience.
The defence looks more set — and much more experienced now — but 2018 first-round picks Adam Boqvist and Nic Beaudin and 2016 second-rounder Chad Krys will try to force their way onto the opening-night roster.
Overall, at every position, Chicago has much better depth and that should translate to much better results.
Dale Tallon was successful in getting two of his three targets to Florida — reuniting with coach Joel Quenneville and signing marquee netminder Sergei Bobrovsky, but missing out on Panarin as a package deal.
The Panthers also inked Brett Connolly, Anton Stralman and Noel Acciari to bolster their depth without losing much from last season’s roster. The big loss was Roberto Luongo to retirement, but that paved the way for Bobrovsky’s arrival.
Tallon believes Quenneville can press the right buttons to push this team over the top — and into the playoffs — while getting the most out of Aaron Ekblad and Mike Matheson, in particular.
As long as Bobrovsky lives up to his contract — as a $10-million-dollar man — the Panthers should be clawing their way towards contention, alongside Toronto, Boston and Tampa Bay in the Atlantic.
Chuck Fletcher is certainly putting his stamp on Philadelphia’s roster — for better or worse, but seemingly for the better on paper.
Fletcher got his man in Kevin Hayes — albeit at a pretty penny — to take some weight off Nolan Patrick, allowing him to develop in a more sheltered role. Fletcher also added experience to the back end in acquiring Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun at the expense of Radko Gudas and futures.
In lesser moves, Fletcher swapped short-lived Flyer Ryan Hartman for oft-injured Tyler Pitlick from Dallas and re-signed Brian Elliott to back up Carter Hart in his sophomore campaign.
Wayne Simmonds finished last season in Nashville, but he still stands out as a loss for Philadelphia going forward, replaced in some fashion by the free-agent signing of Hayes.
The Flyers look fairly set on paper, but there could be room for a rookie forward to crack the roster, with Joel Farabee, Morgan Frost and Isaac Ratcliffe among the frontrunners thanks to former GM Ron Hextall’s drafting.
The future appears bright for Philly, but the core isn’t getting any younger, so the Flyers need to go for it in the present. That responsibility will fall on an overhauled coaching staff that features three former NHL bench bosses — headed up by Alain Vigneault, with assistants Michel Therrien and Mike Yeo.
David Poile has had the Predators contending for a few seasons already, but after a first-round playoff exit in 2019, Nashville could be back with a vengeance for 2020.
There haven’t been as many changes in Music City, with the big one being the trade of defenceman P.K. Subban to make room for the free-agent signing of forward Matt Duchene.
That was Nashville trading from a position of strength to address a perceived weakness. Time will tell how that swap plays out, but the Predators are now looking as deep as they have ever been up front.
That might change if Poile is still shopping Kyle Turris, but a full season of Mikael Granlund should also produce an uptick in offence.
The back end is depleted by Nashville’s standards, but a full season of Dante Fabbro should help offset the loss of Subban and more so in the years to come.
Peter Laviolette could be on the hot seat if the Predators struggle out of the gate since it’s clear that Poile believes this team is built to win now and he’s got the horses to hit the ground running — and scoring.
Joe Sakic is still reaping the rewards of trading Duchene to Ottawa — in a three-way deal that ironically sent Turris to Nashville — but Colorado’s architect hasn’t been resting on those laurels.
Sakic made another blockbuster this offseason, the aforementioned acquisition of Nazem Kadri from Toronto, along with NHL-ready defender Calle Rosen, for Barrie and Kerfoot. That trade could totally turn into a win-win since the Avalanche were in need of a second-line centre and Kadri could be the perfect fit.
Sakic also acquired Andre Burakovsky from Washington and signed Joonas Donskoi in free agency, while also bringing back Colin Wilson to round out Colorado’s top-nine forwards. The other additions in a busy offseason were fourth-liner Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, as a free agent, and depth defender Kevin Connauton in a trade that sent Carl Soderberg to Arizona.
Barrie’s loss will be felt, but Sam Girard can pick up some of that offensive slack, along with a full season of Cale Makar as a Calder candidate and Rosen as an unheralded addition. There is also potential for Bowen Byram to debut as the fourth overall pick from this year’s draft and Conor Timmins is finally healthy again after recovering from a season-long concussion, so Colorado’s future on defence is in good hands without Barrie.
Goaltending is the Avs’ lone concern, with the loss of Semyon Varlamov, but Philipp Grubauer was stellar down the stretch and throughout the playoffs, while Pavel Francouz is a European veteran coming off a strong first season in North America as an AHL starter. That tandem could prove to be the least of Colorado’s worries, but it is the only potential weakness on paper as of today.
Jason Botterill has been equally busy in Buffalo and he’s probably not done yet.
Botterill’s first order of business was successfully selling Jeff Skinner on a long-term future in Buffalo, locking up the pending free agent before he reached the open market.
Botterill then went to work on the trade front in acquiring Colin Miller and Jimmy Vesey for futures before signing Marcus Johansson in the second wave of free agency.
Buffalo will also benefit from a full season of Brandon Montour, but the Sabres seemingly have too many defencemen on their roster with the addition of Miller and their latest move to land Henri Jokiharju, which has led to significant trade speculation surrounding Rasmus Ristolainen. He could fetch another forward, perhaps Nik Ehlers out of Winnipeg or Tyler Johnson from Tampa Bay.
Rasmus Dahlin largely lived up to his hype as a rookie and should take another step as a sophomore, with Steve Smith overseeing that overhauled defence as a key assistant coach.
Ralph Krueger is the new bench boss in Buffalo, replacing Phil Housley and returning to hockey after a stint as a soccer executive. Expect Krueger to make a positive impact, much like he did for Team Europe at the World Cup of Hockey and during his brief time as Edmonton’s head coach.
Also expect growth from Casey Mittelstadt with an improved supporting cast and for a potential youth infusion up front as Victor Olofsson and Tage Thompson push for regular roles. Dylan Cozens, if healthy in time for training camp, Rasmus Asplund and Euro signing Arttu Ruotsalainen could also be in the mix among forwards.
Goaltending is still Buffalo’s weakness, returning the underwhelming tandem of Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen will likely start the season on the sidelines recovering from hip surgery, but he could take over the net at some point like Hart did in Philadelphia this past season.
John Chayka has bolstered Arizona’s offence with the acquisitions of Phil Kessel, who should be capable of scoring 30 goals for the Coyotes, and Carl Soderberg, who exceeded expectations with 23 goals for Colorado last season.
Kessel cost the Coyotes Alex Galchenyuk and first-round defence prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph, but Arizona clearly got the best player in that trade, and Soderberg didn’t cost much at all.
Arizona will be banking on healthy (and productive) campaigns from Nick Schmaltz and Christian Dvorak, who missed much of last season. The Coyotes are also hoping Antti Raanta’s injuries are behind him, even though Darcy Kuemper filled in admirably last season.
On paper, if this roster can stay relatively healthy, the Coyotes look like playoff contenders. Familiarity with Rick Tocchet’s systems, combined with the addition of Phil Housley as an assistant coach overseeing the defence and power play, should help Arizona take that next step.
Jim Benning made something of a splash while hosting the NHL draft in acquiring J.T. Miller from Tampa Bay before signing two of the top defencemen in free agency — those being Tyler Myers, a towering new addition, and Alex Edler, a returnee as one of the faces of the franchise.
Benning further bolstered the blue line with the signings of B.C. boy Jordie Benn and Oscar Fantenberg, but the biggest addition on the back end could prove to be a full season of rookie sensation Quinn Hughes. And don’t forget about Olli Juolevi either.
Vancouver will also be getting full seasons of forwards Tanner Pearson and Josh Leivo, plus promising backup goaltender Thatcher Demko, who could form one of the league’s better tandems with Jacob Markstrom.
The Canucks will continue to rely heavily on Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser to drive their offence, but the depth should be better with the late addition of Micheal Ferland in the second wave of free agency and providing Sven Baertschi and Brandon Sutter are healthy again.
Vancouver would still like to shed some salary — be it Sutter or Loui Eriksson — but that will be easier said than done. More likely, those two veterans will need to work their way back into Travis Green’s lineup in order to improve their trade stock, but they do offer experience that can be valuable as the Canucks’ youthful core pushes towards playoff contention.
Larry Fisher is a senior writer and head scout for The Hockey Writers, having been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Fisher covers both the NHL and the WHL, specializing in prospects and NHL draft content, including his annual mock drafts that date back to 2012. Fisher has also been a beat writer for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets since 2008, formerly working as a sports reporter/editor for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada from 2008-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.